Sonoma Wine Region is about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Or, you can fly into the Sonoma County airport.
Like Napa, Sonoma has loads of wineries, restaurants, and activities. But we think of it as more laid-back and a little more affordable than Napa.
In terms of wine (after all this is a wine blog), Sonoma has 18 AVAs and over 400 wineries. With its diverse terrain and microclimates, it grows a large variety of grapes. It is mostly known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandels. Although wineries are tucked in throughout the county, we especially like Healdsburg, Guerneville, and Sonoma areas for wines.
Although it is more laid back, many tasting rooms are getting so popular that you often need advance reservations to taste their wines.
Sonoma Wine Tasting
We have been to the area many times. On our 2021 trip, we stopped at the following places.
Walt Wines tasting room in downtown Sonoma is a great place to get acquainted with their wines (they also have a tasting room by Oxbow Market in Napa). Walt produces single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Its grapes come from top vineyards from Southern California’s Santa Barbara County to Northern Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Although we particularly favored their bigger, earthier Sonoma Coast Pinot Nors (especially their 2018 Bob’s Ranch and Gap’s Crown), we also enjoyed the somewhat lighter-bodied, more fruit-forward 2018 Brown Ranch (Carneros) and Santa Lucia Highlands’ Rosella.
Roche Winery (Downtown Sonoma) produces wines a wide range of varietals but also focuses largely on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We especially like their fuller bodied Pinot Noirs that show more earth and darker fruits, including its 2015 Tipperary and especially its 2016 Cuvee Genevieve (a blend of pinot from three Carneros vineyards). And for something entirely different, try the 2018 Sonoma Square Red—a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Pinot Noir and 10% Zinfandel. Our favorites, however, were two late harvest dessert wines—the 2018 Chardonnay and especially the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc.
Freeman Vineyard and Winery (Sebastopol). We have been fans of Freemen wines since we first attended an event in the early 2000s. Winemaker Akiko Freeman produces some stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. We especially liked their 2018 Hawk Hill Chardonnay which has a nice balance between tart and rich flavors, 2019 Gloria Pinot Noir which nicely balances oak fruit and acid, and 2017 Akiko’s Cuvee which has a nice touch of earth with the deep berry and plum flavors. But our favorite was the 2018 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir which provides ripe huckleberries flavor with moderate tannins and acid.
Three Sticks Wines (Sonoma). We stopped here without a reservation on the basis of a last-minute recommendation. While they were too busy to accommodate a full tasting from its roughly 20 wine offering of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, they did squeeze us in for a sampling of its 2019 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir (a premier Sonoma Coast vineyard known for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that Three Sticks owns) and its 2018 William James Vineyard (Russian River) Pinot Noir. Although we preferred Three Stick’s Gap’s Crown, we preferred Walt’s version of this fruit. Still, the combination of the hospitality, the selection of single-vineyard wines, and the lovely 19th- century adobe house in which the tasting room is located provides sufficient motivation for a more comprehensive, return visit.
Copain Wines (Healdsburg) relies on cooler climate Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley fruit to primarily produce a range of refined, elegant Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs. Located atop a hill with incredible views over vineyards and the lovely landscape, we had a winemaker-guided tasting that began with a crisp, fresh Anderson Valley 2017 Tidal Break Chardonnay followed by examples of very different Pinot Noirs from the two areas. Its smooth, lean 2016 Maggy Hawk from Anderson Valley had a red fruit character and a refreshing acid level. Then we tasted two, very different expressions of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs: The Tous Ensemble was a fuller-bodied Pinot Noir with low tannin, dark fruit flavors, and earth. Then to demonstrate the wide range of coastal growing conditions and wines, we tasted the 2018 Sealift a lighter body, higher acid wine grown on a windy, high-altitude site with big day-to-night temperature swings. A very instructive profile of Sonoma’s cooler-climate wines with a spectacular view over the valley.
Rootdown (Healdsburg) is a tiny, low-production winey that produces a range of lean, crisp white wines from less common (at least in the U.S.) white varietals including Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Riesling and reds such as Trousseau, Mouvedre, Sangiovese and one, lone Pinot Noir. We began with a crisp 2019 Rose made from Trousseau followed by a very nice, very crisp 2018 Grenache Blanc and 2019 rather austere 2019 Riesling (Cole Ranch R2). Then we went to also crisp, light-bodied reds: a 2018 Mouvedre and a 2019 Pinot Noir (also from Cole Ranch), and a medium-bodied 2018 Sangiovese. Although the wines were a bit austere for our tastes, the winery produces some very interesting expressions of wines that are much less than common in the new world.
Rockpile Vineyards (Healdsburg) was a dramatic counterpoint to Rootdown. Drawing all its grapes from the hot, rugged climate of the Rockpile region, it specializes in Zinfandels, making some of the biggest, highest tannin, and highest alcohol wines in Sonoma. We began with three 2018 Zinfandels. The lightest was a Botticelli Zinfandel with bright red fruit from a low altitude hillside. Then to a bigger, higher altitude (1,200 feet), fruit-forward, high-acid Leigh Thomas Zinfandel with darker fruit and more acid. We followed that to their big brother–a high-altitude (2,000 feet), high acid, high tannin Buffalo Hollow Reserve, which surprisingly, was our favorite of the tasting. While all Zinfandels have relatively high alcohol levels, the Reserve topped the charts at 16 percent. All included a small percentage of Petite Syrah to add black fruit flavors and tannin. Then, to show the diversity of the site, we tasted a big, impressive, fruit-forward 2018 Syrah and a big, lush, high-tannin 2018 Buffalo Hollow Petite Syrah.
Siduri Wines (Healdsburg). Anyone who knows us knows that we always have Siduri Wines in our wine cellar. As one of our favorite Pinot Noir producers, we always like stopping here to taste old favorites as well as exploring any new vineyard-designate wines with which we were not familiar. While we find all of their wines to be based on quality fruit and to be well crafted for the price, we found three new wines that most closely matched our preferences for Pinot Noirs: good body, restained dark fruit, and a smooth finish. These were the 2018 Lingenfelder Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and the 2016 and 2018 La Encantada Vineyard (Santa Rita Highlands). And we can never stop ourselves from stocking up on a few of our long-time favorites: Gary’s Vineyard from Santa Lucia Highlands and Soberanes Vineyard, also from Santa Lucia Highlands.
Quivera Vineyards (Healdsburg). This Dry Creek winery has such a large portfolio of wines that we were only able to sample about a dozen wines that our host believed would best match our own particular tastes. We especially liked quite a few:
- 2019 Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc is a light, crisp, refreshing wine with a taste reminiscent of ripe pineapple. Its edges had been smoothed with a few months in neutral barrels;
- 2017 Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir, a vineyard with which we were already very familiar from other vintners;
- 2018 GSM (60% Grenache, 20% each of Syrah and Mouvedre) from Quivera’s Wine Creek Ranch exhibited a range of flavors and a smooth palate; and
- 2018 Pillsbury Zinfandel, a deep, but surprisingly approachable Zinfandel grown on very old (up to 120 years) vines.
Ridge Vineyards/Lytton Springs (Healdsburg), one of California’s oldest, most respected vineyards, is renowned for its highly regarded, high-priced (about $250) Monte Bello Bordeaux-style blend. Although Monte Bello is out of our price range, we have traditionally enjoyed a number of their other, lesser-priced offerings. We arrived for a shortened tasting as it was the end of the day that unfortunately, did not include any of their single old vine Zinfandels. But we did enjoy the 2018 Lytton Springs Z List (72% Zinfandel, 18% Petite Sirah, 8% Carignane, and 2% Mataro).
Our favorites of the tasting, however, were:
- 2018 Estate Chardonnay that used whole-cluster fermentation to provide nice structure and reduced the buttery taste that often results from malolactic fermentation; and
- 2018 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, consisting of 78% Cabernet, 21% Merlot, and 1% Petite Verdot, all from relatively young vines in their Santa Cruz Mountain Monte Bello Vineyard. It is intended as something of a young-vine version of its famous Monte Bello wines, with grapes grown in the same vineyard (albeit on much younger vines) and similar treatment in the winery, although it is aged in American oak barrels, which Ridge uses with all its wines other than Monte Bello, which uses French oak; and
- 2018 Blasic Chalk Hill Zinfandel (97% Zinfandel and 3% Petite Sirah), a big, but very smooth Zinfandel that has lower alcohol (14% and is not a jammy as many Zinfandels.
Tasting wine is always a great activity but one also needs food….good food. And boy does Sonoma have some great places to eat. On this trip, we found some new favorites and revised some past favorites.
We enjoyed a huge, multi-course meal at this place which is considered one of Healdsburg’s premier restaurants. Each course was inventive, delicious, and in some cases, works of art. Our culinary odyssey began with a huge charcuterie plate consisting of several types of cured meat (with our favorites being the duck prosciutto and lomo), two kinds of cheeses and a selection of olives, cornichons, and mustards. From there came:
- Ahi poke with barrel-aged soy Kombu emulsion, nori chips, and furikake;
- Roasted celeriac soup poured over a bed of baby beets, beet gastrique (which infused a red pattern through the soup), and crispy rock shrimp;
- Day boat scallops en croute, which entailed scallops, wild fennel pollen, American caviar, and champagne beurre blanc baked under a puffed-up pastry shell;
- Alaskan halibut with fennel pollen, English pea emulsion, and crispy pancetta for one person in our party, and coriander-crusted duck breast, orange, and vanilla bean frangipane, and vanilla-poached duck confit for the others; and
- Honey-brined pork porterhouse with wine-braised cabbage, fennel salad, and toasted walnut vinaigrette which was relatively tasty, but tough.
Our desserts were:
- Toasted brioche with homemade jam and salted brown butter ice cream; and
- A Snicker’s bar-like item (called ItsNotA ‘Snickers Bar’ for trademark reasons), with cocoa nib tuile, peanut powder, and sea salt infused caramel.
All of the dishes (with the exception of the pork), not to speak of the presentations and service, were very good. But the poke, scallops, duck, and ItsNotA ‘Snickers Bar’ were standouts.
To accompany this feast, we chose two nice bottles of 2018 Sonoma County wines, a Faila Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and an Aperture Bordeaux-style (Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant) blend.
It was a wonderful experience, for which we will return, albeit probably for the a la carte or three-course option rather than the overly generous (at least for our appetites) multi-course feast.
This luxury resort has a Michelin-starred restaurant with a lovely outside dining area. Diners can select three, four or five course meals. Our party of four decided on the three-course option. And since we each got and shared different items for each course, we were able to taste six different dishes.
- An amuse bouche of smoked trout on crème fraiche and a smoked pea pancake;
- Appetizer course. One dish was a gin-cured Ahi tuna poke tartare with seaweed salad, baby daikon, yuzo avocado and puffed black rice furikake. The other was grilled octopus with marrowfat beans, chorizo, pimento vinaigrette and aji amrillo aioli;
- Entrée course dishes consisted of a perennial favorite that has, by popular demand, been on the menu since the restaurant first opened—Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit. It contains three perpetrations of different parts of the rabbit: applewood-smoked bacon wrapped loin, frenched roasted rack and confit of leg with whole-grain mustard cream sauce and fingerling potato. Joyce had the wild Alaskan halibut with fava leaf-pine nut pistou, lemon beurre fondue, and spring asparagus.
- Dessert dishes were a Basque cheesecake with strawberries, meyer lemon curd, and cashew praline. A cheese course consisted of four, very different cheeses: “Highway 1” Valley Ford raw cow milk from Valley Ford CA, Drunken Goat from Don Juan Cheese company in Spain, “Chiriboga Blue” raw cow milk blue cheese from Obere Muhle Dairy in Allgau Germany, and or favorite, “Quadello di Bufala” buffalo milk cheese from Casatica Creamery in Quattro Portoni Italy.
The atmosphere was lovely, the service was professional and all of the food was very good. Our favorite dishes were the rabbit loin, rabbit rack, Alaskan halibut and “Quadello di Bufala” cheese. We also enjoyed two moderately-priced Sonoma County wines. A crisp 2019 Ryme Las Brisas Vineyard Vermentino from Geyserville and a 2010 Ten Acre Cummings Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River AVA. Overall, however, we have had more artfully-presented food that we enjoyed more and ended up costing less at other places. Will we return? Sure. But not as often and not before we return again to Valette.
We shared five small plates with friends at this favorite Healdsburg tapas restaurant. Every one of our shared dishes was excellent: creamy chicken croquettes, fried eggplant chips with truffle honey, grilled monterey calamari with salsa verde, sea scallops with romesco, octopus with fingerlings, and lamb burgers. Our wine was a 2019 from Leo Steen Saini Vineyard, a light, crisp Sonoma County Chenin Blanc.
At this Portuguese restaurant on downtown Sonoma’s lovely, historic square, Tom had a very nice Portuguese fisherman’s stew (with cod, prawns, mussels, clams and scallops) and Joyce had a nice pulled pork sandwich.
Always a good spot for a quick-pick-up lunch from the small, Healdsburg location of the renowned gourmet grocery store and sandwich shop. We enjoyed a roasted chicken and melted gruyere pannini with caramelized onions and roasted red peppers.
And If You Are Driving Back to San Francisco
One way to drive back from Sonoma to San Francisco is via the lovely scenic Route 1 coastal route. Take some time and make a few stops for scenery, a little exercise, and food. Here are some suggestions among the many stops you could make.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a good place to burn up some of the calories you consumed in Sonoma. We took a beautiful and mostly solitary four-mile, two-hour walk from Limantour to Sculptured Beaches. The latter was lined with virtually vertical dramatically sculpted sandstone cliffs on one side and sea rocks and outcroppings with occasional crashing waves on the other. Still in the distance, a few dramatic sea stacks. Although we also planned to take the two-mile round trip walk along the shallow marshes of Limantour Spit, the trail was closed for Harbor Seal breeding season.
Pretty Places to Stop
We made some brief stops at a few additional places
- Bolinas. This isolated quaint town is often hard to find as its residents periodically remove any signage that points to it. But if you can find your way there, take a detour and explore it.
- Stinson Beach is another pretty town for a detour. Then drive up and down the steep hills that are lined with beaches, steep cliffs that plunge down to a shoreline that is pocked the giant sea rocks, and dramatic sea stacks.
- Stop and walk along the Muir Overlook cliffs where you will find stunning, panoramic views of the coastline and a WWII history lesson with its reconstructed “Gopher Holes” which housed soldiers who, as explained in interpreted panels, continually monitored the coast for Japanese ships and, along with similar sites up the coast, provided the measurements that could provide the triangulation required for shoreline batteries to accurately target intruders.
- And don’t miss Sausalito as you get near San Francisco. We like walking through this beautiful waterfront town.
Sonoma Coast Restaurants
Driving down the coast can also make you hungry. We always enjoy stopping at a couple of places.
Tony’s Seafood, in the town of Tomales Bay, is home to one of a growing number of Hog Island Oyster Company’s restaurants. Our light lunch consisted of a tasty plate of barbequed oysters, a fried oyster Po-boy and an extra order of the fried bivalves for good measure.
Fish Restaurant, at the head of a Sausalito harbor, is a very popular, casual, al fresco restaurant that serves always delicious preparations of seasonal, sustainable seafood. You order at a counter and your food is delivered to the picnic-type tables along the harbor (inside seating is also available). Our meal, which consisted of three dishes, including one that we ended up taking home without, after the first two dishes, we were unable to even touch until late that evening. Our dishes were cheese fonduta with octopus, chorizo and pickled onions, grilled calamari on linguini with garlic butter sauce and a generous (albeit expensive) portion of Dungeness crabmeat on a torpedo roll with a green side of salad. All were as good as ever and will keep us returning to this gem of a restaurant.